Sazanami Fishing Cooperative operates out of Nanao, Japan, a small fishing village located at the base of the Noto Peninsula on the Sea of Japan. The waters off the peninsula contain some of Japan’s richest source of fish; we visited in January which happened to be buri (yellowtail) season, a fish that marks the winter throughout the country. We stayed at a nearby ryokan where every single dish we were served for dinner featured buri in some form or another. It gave us a good idea of what we’d see in the morning.
We arrived at the docks at 4am long before sunrise. Men huddled around fires burning in steel barrels like hobos waiting to catch out. The cooperative is made up of a wide-range of hard men and restless high school boys still unsure of their futures. Traveling out to the open waters with them we got the feeling we were witnessing the arc of a local man’s life. Live by the sea, die by it. The Noto seemed like the kind of place where little changes over time. Soon the young men on the boats will become old and the cycle of life will repeat itself in a way people in cities now like to call ‘sustainable’ but is really just the way things are done and always have been.
Like that cycle we learned too that the benefit of joining a commercial fishing expedition was the chance to consider the food chain up close. For us, the sea has always been a magical mystery, so full of unseeable things blanketed beneath the water’s surface. Over the course of the morning we would see everything we’d been eating during our time in Japan -- yellowtail, squid, octopus, mackerel. The way the fish emerged out of the dark waters was like a gift or prize or theft, a reward that felt illicit since we’d done nothing to deserve it other than to be there. We were told there would be stink but we never noticed it. We were warned about seasickness but were too excited to ever feel the boat’s motion. Seeing the catch of fish felt important the way visiting a farm is for a child -- to learn where things come from -- a small lesson, perhaps, underscored by the embarrassment that we’d never attempted to observe this process before.
Out on the water the boats creep in a pincer movement, slowly urging their catch into the center of the massive net. We were told it was a traditional way of fishing, this entrapment, and other than the motors that drove the cranes and pulleys it was easy to imagine how the people in this area could have fished like this for centuries, the town’s sons and fathers and grandfathers banding together for the daily harvest year after year after year.
To a city dweller, life out by the sea always feels somehow simpler -- a dumb fallacy, of course. It’s not so much simpler as it is more elemental: water, cold, darkness, speed. It’s a compressed experience, one where everything feels identifiable and known even if the elements are never under control or really understood. It’s an experience that stays with you -- you think you’re right to eat this way, a sea-based diet, even as you’re confronted with the unlucky mass of sea life struggling in the net, with the pile of dying fish, with the ultimate randomness of the catch itself. The sea and everything that comes out of it, the men who work in the dark to extract fish from sea, are all a revelation that will be remembered forever.
The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (21CM) is located in Kanazawa, a small arts-minded city on the western coast of Japan. Opened in 2004, the museum occupies a prime position in the city center, across the street from not only City Hall but also the old castle and Kenrokuen, one of the loveliest gardens in all of Japan. When you spend some time in Kanazawa, 21CM’s central location makes sense: the geography, the building’s circular form, and the steady traffic streaming throughout the space all suggest the 21CM as a community hub in this charming town by the sea.
The museum was designed by SANAA, an architecture firm now very much celebrated around the world, whose reputation was earned from projects like this. Similar to Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, the 21CM has had a transformative effect on this provincial city off the Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka shinkansen axis. Not only has the museum placed Kanazawa on the map for the world’s art travelers, more importantly, it gave residents another way to imagine their town, as a place that matters beyond its traditional prefectural boundaries. The seriousness of the museum’s ambitions are further bolstered by the strength of its exhibits, hosting shows by foreign artists like Matthew Barney and Gerhard Richter as well as by some of our favorite Japanese artists like Takashi Homma and Makoto Saito. For a small city, it’s an incredible opportunity to experience the work and ideas from such a wide range of people.
Architecturally, the museum is a cluster of box-like galleries unified by a circular shell. SANAA has compared it to a series of islands, an archipelago, and the way we experience the space very much has that feel of circulating water. It’s clear the museum’s design explores some of the dominant issues in Japanese architecture – the binary tension between public-private, inside-outside, decentralization, geometry, ambiguous space, etc. And much has been said about the round building’s de-centered approach, which is all true. You can enter the building from four different directions depending on where you are in the neighborhood and each port will influence how you experience the space. It’s like the flip side to SANAA’s Moriyama House in Tokyo -- a similar group of segmented structures open to its surroundings -- but this museum, as a public space, feels more dynamic and complete, inviting and impressive.
We spent a couple months in Kanazawa not too long after the museum first opened and always loved visiting, stopping by once or twice a week for lunch in the café, to thumb through architecture books displayed on Atelier Bow Wow’s fantastic manga-pod, or to gape at the abyss of Anish Kapoor’s optical mystery or just to sit in the quiet of the James Turrell room. Our favorite space, though, was the library, a place to browse through current issues of Japanese and international art magazines and to research the works of artists you think about as you wander the museum or through the town itself. Its glass walls make the space so inviting, where you can watch the changing light outside and all the activity passing through the museum itself. The nearby galleries reserved for kids and community projects are always full, with children on school-sponsored field trips romping through, pensioners, young couples on dates, office workers on lunch breaks -- it makes you feel like you’re in the heart of the city.
Kanazawa is a town whose beauty and primary attraction is from its past and how well it has managed to preserve it. Never bombed in the war, it’s the town we always imagined Kyoto would be, and there are many neighborhoods where it’s easy to lose yourself in time and forget which century you are in. Still, you know from the name alone that the museum is not preoccupied with this past. Instead, what makes the 21st Century Museum so special and meaningful is how confidently it thinks about the present and the future, not by locking itself in the sentimental prison of history but by showing how art and architecture can help you understand all of this and still provide a way to make you feel connected to it all.
Umimirai Library is a public library in the western part of Kanazawa, a slow 20-minute drive from the city center. Designed by Coelacanth-K&H Architects, an architecture firm based in Tokyo, and opened in June 2011, the three-story self-described “cake box” was intended to invigorate this sleepy area of town, a low-lying neighborhood of dreary houses and big box stores that lacked any hubs of activity or real public space. But ask the man on the street about it and you’ll most likely encounter a blank. We inquired at the Tourism Center for directions and even they had to google it. Apparently, not much happens in this part of town -- not yet at least, which is sort of the point of the library.
The building is a large white box perforated with hole-punched windows that light up the interiors naturally in the day and at night glow out like portholes of a giant ship. There is a maritime feel to the place, probably unintended, or maybe since it was designed by a firm whose name evokes the ancient deep sea the contrary feelings of floating and drifting and being submerged are all by design. We could easily imagine how much we’d love coming here if this were our local, an airy place with soft, diffused light that lends room to learn, daydream, and to remember. Song lyrics echo in the mind: “...and our friends are all aboard / many more of them live next door...” It’s a peaceful, sublime place, this literary submarine.
The main reading room with its 40-foot ceilings provides a grand scale that all great libraries have, from the NYPL on Fifth Avenue to Suzzallo on the University of Washington campus. In fact, we liked Umimirai so much more than that other notable library in Seattle -- Rem Koolhaas’ central library -- a dazzling structure, no doubt, but a place that’s more like a puzzle than a place to retreat. Once you get past the spectacle of its punctured skin, the Umimirai Library is a comfortably traditional place. It’s no wonder the library is filled with young children, the elderly, and students -- a library’s most loyal patrons. Sure there are modern features like glassed-in cellphone booths and self-service checkout stations. But we were most envious of the spacious newspaper reading room -- an old man’s joy -- with its canted desks, localized lighting, and drawers full of past days. Japan is a nation where the newspaper is still very much a part of everyday life, and that Coelacanth-K&H Architects featured this reality underscores the success of its design and their intent to insinuate the library into the community’s daily activities.
For us, so much about Japan feels like a bizarro alternate reality where -- like with the newspaper that’s disappearing everywhere else -- the rest of the world moves right while Japan turns left. This library feels no different. These days, investing in a new library seems like a counter-intuitive act where, at least in the U.S., branch libraries close one-by-one and already meager budgets continue to be slashed. It’s impossible, laughable even, to imagine our cramped Chinatown branch being replaced by the gleaming Umimirai Library ... which says everything about this library and this town and why we love Japan so much. It feels like a luxury that a space like this was newly built, a sign that that the city believes in its people, that believes the act of reading is worth investing in, that believes these things will continue to matter in the future and that it’s important for these people and activities to come together in an inspiring and provocative space.